How to share a house: A case study

As a companion to her essays “The slow homes manifesto” and “How to stop foreclosure through homesharing,” Janelle Orsi offers this nuts-and-bolts case study in the marriage of two households.

The cast:

Household 1: Jane, and her devoted companions, Buck and Savannah, both German Shorthair Pointers.

Household 2: Regina and Joel, and their daughters, Melia, age 6, and Naia, age 3.

The setting:

A tiny town in the remote woods of the Santa Cruz Mountains in California.

The birth of an idea:

As a young couple with a child, Regina and Joel were in search of a long-term living arrangement. A major priority was to be able to own, rather than rent, their home. They regretted the possibility of leaving the beautiful Santa Cruz Mountains, but the price of land had skyrocketed. They began to explore the potential for moving elsewhere.

Then along came Jane. Jane owned a beautiful home in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which she helped to build herself. Jane is a professional trainer, facilitator and coach, and she travels often. While she loves living in the woods, and generally prefers to live by herself, she recognized certain disadvantages to “living alone in the middle of nowhere.” When she worked from home, she often felt isolated. When she traveled, it was a challenge to find dog-sitters who were willing to make the trek to her remote home. While she values time and space to be alone, she did yearn for occasional company. Jane had long dreamed of forming a land-sharing community arrangement, but had never been able to simultaneously pull together the right ingredients of land, housing, willing people, and compatible personalities.

Since they lived nearby, Regina and Joel began to house-sit for Jane while she was away. As Jane got to know Regina and Joel, she found that they were pleasant to be around, respectful of Jane and her home, and generally good natured and trustworthy people.

When she heard their reluctant plans to move to Vermont, she proposed a radical solution: “How about building your home on my land?”

Making it happen:

Jane, Regina, and Joel met to discuss the possibilities. Their options were somewhat limited by the local zoning ordinance, which allowed no more than one house on the property. Their solution: build an addition onto Jane’s home that would allow for the feel of two separate units, while sharing a kitchen in the middle.

Planning was the secret to the success of their arrangement. Jane, Regina, and Joel met frequently over the course of several months, often making meals together to find out how it felt to be together in a shared kitchen. Over these meals, they got to know each other and sorted out the details of the arrangement. They discussed their needs, their expectations, their finances, their preferences for household cleanliness, the architectural design of the addition, and so on. The building process itself took another year. As of the date of this writing, they have been living in the shared house for five years.

What they share:

The two households share a kitchen, hot-tub, and laundry room, and a handful of items, including tools and kitchenware. The washer, dryer, and many kitchen appliances belonged originally to Jane. However, as those appliances have needed to be repaired or replaced, the two households split the costs 50-50.

The two households have also casually evolved certain sharing routines. For example, Jane and Regina are often in the kitchen at the same time in the morning. Jane sometimes makes extra breakfast for Regina, who is occupied by various morning routines with her children. Other times, she’ll simply butter Regina’s toast when it pops out of the toaster. To Jane, this is a small gesture and takes little effort, but to time-pressed Regina, this means a great deal. At the other end of the day, when Regina or Joel makes dinner for their family, there’s often more than enough to include Jane, who thoroughly appreciates the gift of an effortless meal. They all alert one another if there are extra leftovers to share, an open jar of salsa, and most importantly, a fresh batch of cookies.

In addition, the two households casually collaborate on shopping trips, spurred by the fact that their home is a 40-minute round trip from the nearest grocery store. There is an ongoing shopping tab posted in the kitchen that tracks what each has spent on the other’s groceries. Commonly used items like spices, oils and dish soaps are shared; for these, a loose unspoken arrangement has evolved around who buys what, depending on stores they each frequent. A huge boon for Jane has been Regina and Joel’s willingness to do the Costco and Trader Joe’s shopping—she gets the prices and variety without the overwhelm of actually shopping there.

They have also evolved into a loose division of various household duties. For example, Jane typically manages all the household repairs, and she is “more than happy” to let Regina and Joel manage the household compost.

The benefits:

For Regina and Joel: An opportunity to live and own a home in a beautiful place at a very reasonable price. Occasional childcare from Jane.

For Jane: Built-in dog care. Less isolation. “Someone to play cards with when we lose power and the rain washes out our roads.”

For Everyone: Shared cookies, the security of having extra people around, pleasant companionship in the kitchen, reduced expenses, pooling of resources to reduce environmental impact, help with shopping, cooking, and other tasks, and relief from certain household duties, such as composing. In addition, by enlarging the existing house, everyone has ended up with a higher property value; this is because the average price-per-square-foot of a 5-bedroom house is higher than that of a 3-bedroom house.

Regina explained: “One of the things that I am most pleased with is the fact that we have been able to simplify our lifestyles through the art of sharing. I feel good knowing that this living arrangement has a much smaller negative impact on our planet than if we all lived in our own separate homes without the benefits of combined appliances, energy, and space.”

Regina noted: “We have created a sense of community in our home. Although small and nowhere near being a village, we do indeed enjoy the fact that we are not all alone in our mountain home. We would be much more limited if we did not have a housemate like Jane with whom to share household chores, expenses, food shopping and preparation, as well as occasional child/dog care. I think that by living more communally, a greater sense of ease is achieved for everyone.”

What makes it work?

Personal space. Aside from the shared kitchen, hot tub, and laundry room, all other areas of the house are divided between the two households. Everyone has the ability to retreat to their personal space when they’ve had enough social stimulation. Even the kids understand this; On one occasion when Jane got up to leave the kitchen, Melia (then three years old) asked, “Are you going to retreat now?” Within the kitchen, the need for personal space is also reflected in the fact that each household has their own refrigerator, designed to eliminate any hassles over shelf organization and leftovers (yummy or funky).

A basic attitude of generosity. Jane, Regina, and Joel generally give and share with no strings attached. There is no score card kept on who cooked, who shopped, who waited on the repair man or helped carry heavy items. They each understand that they are benefiting in different ways from the shared arrangement, and thus don’t always expect all things to even out. Jane explains that she thinks things work so well between them all because everyone is focused on the question of “What can I do for you?” instead of, “What’s in it for me?” She explains, “I’d rather take care of what’s important to me and do it as a gift. If I want the sink clean, I clean it. I notice and appreciate when someone else is motivated to clean the stove. As soon as you develop an attitude of ‘he never ________ [e.g. takes out the trash] and she always ________ [e.g. eats my bananas],’ then you are headed down a bad road.”

A few good rules and a lot of good communication. According to Jane, Regina is an “excellent communicator,” who has even taken workshops in Non-Violent Communication. “A key component to our living situation is healthy, clear communication,” Regina told me. “I am extremely grateful for the fact that Jane is such a clear communicator. I would strongly recommend some sort of communication class or study group to anyone planning a co-housing situation.” Through her work in facilitation and coaching, Jane herself is a professional communicator. They have all encouraged one another to speak up and consequently everyone feels comfortable voicing their needs and concerns without fear of conflict or defensiveness. As a result, no one has felt the need to have any written household rules. At the same time, a few useful rules have evolved over time, including: 1) You can use my eggs, so long as you don’t take the last two; and 2) No children in the walkway between the stove and the sink.

Planning. By meeting frequently for nearly a year, the three were able to discuss many things in detail and plan even for the unforeseeable. They asked each other questions such as: “What happens if we don’t want to be good friends? Will we have the courage to tell each other when we don’t want to spend time together?” “What happens in the event of one of the ‘3 Ds: death, divorce, or disability, and what would we do in a worst-case scenario?” They also planned the housing design in great deal. For example, using tape on the floor, they simulated a full-sized floor-plan of their kitchen and did a “butt test.” They simulated various kitchen tasks to ensure that one person could be washing dishes, while another was preparing food on the island and they wouldn’t bump into each other. They discovered, for example, that putting the stove at the end of the counter would allow two or three people to stand around the stove at once, if necessary. As Regina noted, “If the majority of details and ideas are sorted out before actually living together, then the transition into co-housing will be much smoother overall.”

Mutual respect, shared values, and other personal qualities that make a difference: Everyone in the two households values protection of the environment; they all generally eat organic foods, strive to reduce/reuse/recycle, and share resources in the spirit of reducing their impact on the planet. Jane confesses that her own standards of cleanliness are likely higher than those of her housemates, but that Regina and Joel have consistently respected this in their shared spaces, even with two young children to clean up after. “They are very thoughtful and have good attention to detail,” she notes.

Jane also appreciates her housemates’ parenting style. “In the middle of a party here, a dear long-time friend who was visiting for the first time announced loudly, ‘Hell has frozen over. Jane is cooking in the kitchen and living with children!’ She’s right—I’m way out of my comfort zone living with kids. And I can do it because of Regina and Joel’s amazing parenting—completely low stress for me to be around.”

Additionally, Jane recognized that Joel and Regina have a solid relationship, which makes them easy to be around and which assures Jane that their shared housing arrangement is unlikely to be torn apart by a divorce. Finally, Jane says it is important that Joel and Regina are primarily her housemates, not close friends, lovers or co-workers. She appreciates the simplicity of that connection. “There are no outside arenas of potential conflict. It’s just about living together,” she says.

Legally speaking

The legal arrangement between the two households might cause the average lawyer to sweat a little bit. With the exception of a recorded property deed showing their respective ownership percentages, and the joint property tax, mortgage, and insurance bills, there is no other signed document providing the details of the arrangement.

Fortunately, the verbal and unsigned written agreements between the three have been consistently followed, and everyone trusts that they are getting a good deal from the arrangement. They have all agreed on the division of monthly expenses, and sort out most issues and additional expenses as they arise. They have all loosely committed to continue living together for 10 years, after which they will discuss the possibility of selling the whole property all at once.

They all three admit, however, that they should have a Tenancy in Common Agreement drafted at some point, primarily to delineate the rights of all three owners in the event that someone needs to move or sell out before the end of 10 years, or in the event of anything unforeseen that could significantly change their arrangement. However, until and after such agreement is put into writing, Jane explains their arrangement is primarily governed by the law of generosity.

Janelle Orsi


Janelle Orsi

Janelle Orsi is the Director of the national nonprofit Sustainable Economies Law Center, and she is a "sharing lawyer" in private law practice in Oakland, CA. Her work